Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Bob Grimm

Alvin Schwartz’s collection of short horror stories for kids gets a big-screen adaptation with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, directed by André Ovredal and produced by Guillermo del Toro.

The original three books gathered together stories from folklore and urban legend; Schwartz put his own spin on them, and even instructed readers on how to scare friends while reading them aloud. They were quite short, sometimes grisly and had no connecting thread. They managed to make their way into campfire stories in the 1980s; I distinctly remember somebody getting me with “The Big Toe” one summer’s eve.

Rather than do an anthology movie, like a Creepshow for kids, Ovredal and del Toro opt for a framing device that is a direct nod—one could also call it a rip-off—of Stranger Things/Stephen King’s It-style nostalgia involving plucky kids dealing with various horrors. The resulting film feels derivative, disconnected and boring, after a bunch of decent ideas are crammed into a storyline that just doesn’t work.

The gimmick trying to hold everything together is the story of Sarah Bellows (not a character in the books), an abused, long-deceased girl whose journal of stories is discovered by the aforementioned plucky teens, led by Stella (Zoe Colletti), in 1968. Others in the group include Auggie, the slightly intellectual guy (Gabriel Rush); Chuck, the goofy guy (Austin Zajur); and Ramón, the mysterious newbie (Michael Garza). All the group really needs is a young, quiet girl with a short haircut and an affinity for Eggos, and the Stranger Things circuit would be complete.

Is it scary? A little, at times. Harold the scarecrow is re-created quite nicely from the original drawings by Stephen Gammell in Schwartz’s book. He has a creepy human quality to him, and when he starts walking around, it’s freaky. Unfortunately, as was the case in the book, Harold’s appearance is very short.

“The Red Spot”—the spider-eggs-in-your-face story that appeared in the book after the infamous Bubble Yum spider eggs urban legend of the late 1970s—finds its way in as an ugly bathroom-mirror experience. Most effectively, a variation on “Me Tie Dough-Ty Walker!” called the Jangly Man, featuring a severed head, makes an extended appearance, as does the Pale Lady (once again impeccably re-created from the drawings) from “The Dream.”

You can’t have a Stranger Things/It rip-off without the school bully. That’s Tommy (Austin Abrams), a school athlete with a baseball bat, à la Negan from The Walking Dead, who is quite pissed about the flaming paper bag full of shit that landed on his lap while driving. His pursuit for revenge leads to a drive-in where Night of the Living Dead is playing. (Romero’s zombie classic actually came out in the year in which this movie is set.) Tommy’s fate is a predictable, as is his presence in the film.

Good visuals, decent acting and some solid scares don’t result in a solid horror film. Of course, I’m not the demographic for this one, although I did have the pleasure of reading the books when they first came out, so I wasn’t completely uninitiated. The choice to tie together everything with a hackneyed storyline rather than go the anthology route was a bad one. Too much of the movie feels forced rather than free-flowing.

As with any horror movie, you know you are relatively safe from hardcore frights if the movie is PG-13. It was R-rated, and Stranger Things feels like an R; there’s always that element of unease when you know you are watching something R-rated. Scary Stories, in comparison, feels a little wimpy. Yes, I know it was made for kids, so this is just a warning for hardcore horror fans: It’s pretty tame.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark isn’t a complete loss. It’s a success on the art direction/production design side, and I’m glad a movie exists that has brought Harold to life. But other than Harold and a few other visual treats, the movie feels like a giant missed opportunity.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Casey Affleck writes, directs and stars in Light of My Life, a cross between The Road, Leave No Trace and The Stand. While the film feels a little too familiar, it rises above the unoriginality in its third act thanks to performances by Affleck and his young co-star, Anna Pniowsky.

A father (Affleck) and daughter (Pniowsky) are living off the land after a plague has wiped out most of the planet’s female population. To protect his daughter, nicknamed Rag, Dad has her dress as a boy and tries to keep her out of the public eye.

Much of the movie involves the two telling stories to each other in what feels like improv; those scenes are actually kind of fun. When the two wind up in the home of a friendly preacher (Tom Bower), the film reaches a new level. The last act of the movie is its best, where Affleck gets to show off his chops at directing a thriller.

Elisabeth Moss, in a role reminiscent of Charlize Theron’s in The Road, plays Reg’s mom in flashbacks.

The film isn’t original enough to be an overall success, but the central performances make it worthwhile.

Light of My Life is available via online sources including iTunes and

While the poster for Hobbs and Shaw declares it is presented by Fast and Furious, it has very little in common with that franchise other than the participation of Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, reprising their characters from the Furious films.

In other words … REJOICE! Leaden, dreary Vin Diesel is nowhere to be seen in this movie!

Hobbs and Shaw is a bizarre hybrid of spy thriller, action pic and science fiction. While Fast and Furious movies are certainly outlandish, they remain somewhat grounded in reality (with the notable exception of a car jumping from skyscraper to skyscraper). Hobbs and Shaw, however, completely abandons realism.

It’s too damn long (137 minutes!), but when it works, it works well. It also functions as a comedy in that Johnson and Statham have great timing and work well together.

Hobbs (Johnson) and Shaw (Statham) are protecting Shaw’s sister, Hattie (Vanessa Kirby of Mission: Impossible—Fallout) after she injects herself with something that will have worldwide consequences if she’s captured. The main antagonist is Brixton (Idris Elba), a former Shaw ally who has been turned into some sort of bionic badass who calls himself “Black Superman.” This is one of those places where the film goes totally batty—in a fun way.

The movie also goes a little crazy when it comes to the sibling relationship between Shaw and Hattie, who we see performing evil schemes like “the Keith Moon” in flashbacks to their youth. Problem: Statham is 20-something years older than Kirby, yet their characters are supposed to be virtually the same age in the flashbacks. The movie defies reality in more ways than one.

You won’t really care, because director David Leitch, who gave us the first John Wick, knows his way around action scenes and edits his films so laughs come constantly. While it’s expected that Johnson and Statham will kick ass in action scenes, it is Kirby who steals the show as the action hero of this film. She is, simply put, a total badass.

Hobbs and Shaw has enough star power with Johnson and Statham, but Leitch offers some nice surprises with uncredited cameos. I won’t give them away, but they blindsided me and enhanced the “let’s just go nuts” essence of the movie. The people with the cameos have extensive time, and they are very funny.

Elba is great as a bad guy, and he has a super-smart motorcycle that would make Bruce Wayne jealous. Helen Mirren reappears for a scene or two as Shaw’s incarcerated mom, and she’s always good to have around.

I will say again: This film is way too long. There’s a scene near the end involving a chase around some nuclear reactors that has all the makings of a climax … and then the film takes off to Hobbs’ native Samoa for an extended ending that lost me. This movie would’ve been just right between 90 and 105 minutes. It wears out its welcome a bit.

Still, it’s a blast for most of the running time, and definitely makes the case for more stories about Hobbs and Shaw. With Johnson and Statham on the scene, it’s time to send Diesel packing. We need Hobbs and Shaw movies from here on out in the Fast and Furious universe … and give Kirby her own franchise. She deserves to be center stage!

Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw is now playing at theaters across the valley.

White supremacist Bryon Widner (Jamie Bell), after being raised on a doctrine of hate in a skinhead camp, has a change of heart when he finds love with a single mother (Danielle Macdonald).

Of course, putting a skinhead past behind you—especially when you’ve opted to tattoo your face with hate images—is not an easy thing. Writer-director Guy Nattiv, basing his film on Widner’s true story, does a nice job of showing that redemption sometimes comes at a high price.

Bell is great here as Widner, as is Macdonald as the woman who manages to love him even though he’s a complete asshole. The film feels like a distant cousin of the Edward Norton-starring American History X, although it doesn’t have the artistry of that movie. Still, the movie is a solid story, well-acted—and proof that Bell is a bigger talent than his resume shows.

The supporting cast includes Bill Camp as the leader of the skinhead camp, and Vera Farmiga as the leader’s nurturing yet classless and evil wife. Blink, and you’ll miss a quick appearance by Mary Stuart Masterson as Agent Jackie Marks. She acts like she’s in a different movie, but it’s fun to see her all the same.

Skin is available via online sources including iTunes and

The ninth movie from Quentin Tarantino is a dreamy doozy—his most unapologetically Tarantinian film yet. History and conventionality be damned: QT is behind the camera, and he favors mayhem and artistic license over conventionality and facts.

Set in 1969, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood captures the 1960s film scene and culture as it is dying—and dying hard. Through the Tarantino storytelling lens, they die in mysterious and hallucinogenic ways.

We get Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as insecure, has-been actor Rick Dalton, and his trusty stuntman, Cliff Booth. Dalton’s career has devolved into playing bad guys on weekly installments of TV’s F.B.I.—past his prime and blackballed. Booth is delegated to driving him around and being his confidante.

The setup allows Tarantino to go hog wild with ’60s visuals and songs. Hollywood is a monumental achievement on art- and sound-direction fronts. Some of Tarantino’s soon-to-be most-famous shots are in this movie, including a crane shot over a drive-in screen that dropped my jaw. The soundtrack pops with the likes of Neil Diamond, Simon and Garfunkel, Jose Feliciano, and Paul Revere and the Raiders. The looks and sounds are so authentic that you might find yourself wondering if Dalton and Booth were real people. They were not, but they are based on folks like Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood and Hal Needham.

The most notable real-person character would be Manson family murder victim Sharon Tate, played beautifully by Margot Robbie. She’s the luminous center of the movie, with Tarantino and Robbie taking the opportunity to show Tate as the beautiful, promising person and star Tate was rather than the footnote she’s become in the annals of Charles Manson’s bloody history. This is the first movie since her death that honestly pays homage to her rather than simply making her part of the Manson family rampage.

The Manson family plays a big part in Tarantino’s twisted fairy tale. The fictional Dalton happens to live next to Sharon Tate and her husband, Roman Polanski, while Booth pays a visit to the Spahn Ranch. The Spahn Ranch is where the Manson family squatted, and Booth has a sit-down with Spahn himself (played by super-craggy Bruce Dern). Unlike recent movies that depict the Manson family as having some strange level of grace (Charlie Says), Tarantino shows them as bumbling, idiotic and pathetic. It’s a solid choice.

DiCaprio, in his first role since taking home his much-deserved Oscar for The Revenant (and his second role with Tarantino after Django Unchained), will probably find himself in the running for an Oscar again. He’s a nervous, hilarious mess as Dalton, a man prone to crying in public over his career, yet still capable of blowing up a TV set with tremendous acting fireworks. He has a trailer rant and a hostage-taking-bad-guy speech that now stand as two of his finest acting moments.

In what is also his second teaming with Tarantino (after Inglourious Basterds), Pitt is fantastically funny as a man coasting through life with little care in the world. He’ll face off with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on a set he’s working just to shush his big mouth, or he’ll buy an acid-dipped cigarette for kicks. And when he smokes that cigarette, very strange things happen, and the wonderful Pitt laugh is put to its best use since he played Tyler Durden in Fight Club.

The end of the 1960s was bona fide nutty, and this is a nutty movie. It’s also quite heartfelt and moving.

Tarantino says he might only have one more movie in him after this one. I’m curious to see if he can top himself one more time, or if he just does that rumored Star Trek movie. Either way, Tarantino has left a distinctive mark on American cinema, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood adds to his perfect track record: He’s made nine movies, and all of them are at least good. This one is one of his best.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is playing at theaters across the valley.

Eddie Murphy and Jerry Seinfeld allegedly launched their professional comedy careers during the same exact week in the 1970s. Now we get to watch two of the funniest people on the planet go out for a cup of coffee—and it’s totally hysterical.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is really growing on me, and its 11th season might be its best yet. Murphy, Martin Short, Seth Rogen and Matthew Broderick are among the guests, and every episode is highly watchable.

The indisputable highlight is Murphy, who, once again, teases that he will do standup comedy again someday. If he doesn’t, taking a seat in a car next to Seinfeld is an adequate substitute—because he kills on this show. He does enough routines for a good Murphy special, including a remembrance of a visit to Michael Jackson’s house—including an encounter with a progressively unruly Bubbles the Chimp. He also uncorks his already-infamous Tracy Morgan impersonation. The man is still hilarious.

Second place goes to Broderick, who not only goes out for coffee, but stops by Citi Field (home of the New York Mets) for a baseball fantasy sequence. Both of these guys look like naturals in caps and jerseys.

As for Murphy doing standup … there’s some buzz that he’s wrapping up a megadeal with Netflix to do just that. Oh please, please, please let it be true.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is now streaming on Netflix.

Machismo and sanctioned violence get a sinister, satiric kick to the face in The Art of Self-Defense, the new dark comedy from writer-director Riley Stearns.

Meek accountant Casey (a totally on-point Jesse Eisenberg) is a nerdy wimp on all fronts. His co-workers can’t stand him, and French tourists mock him while he sits in a café—completely obliterating him in a foreign language. The exclamation point: He has just learned French via books on tape, so he understands all of the jabs being thrown his way … and he says nothing. Nerdy wimp personified.

Casey runs out of dog food for his adorable dachshund and must take a long, lonely walk to the local grocer in the dark of night. A motorcyclist with a second rider stops, asks if he has a gun, then rides away. On his way back from the store, that same motorcycle duo kicks the unholy shit out of him.

Seeking help, Casey visits a dojo where he encounters Sensei, played by Alessandro Nivola, in a star turn that might get him the sort of attention he’s always deserved. Sensei is at times helpful in Casey’s quest to become more self-assured—but Sensei also has an evil side. Be wary of the night classes, during which he has no problem breaking a man’s arm in two to demonstrate one of his twisted rules for the martial arts. He’s so self-assured in his toxic masculinity that he knows such an act will produce no lawsuits.

Speaking of that toxic masculinity: It starts to spread in Casey’s system like venom after a manly snake bite during a manly man hike. He’s changing—almost like a robot programmed to preach the Sensei’s doctrine of manly man behavior in all aspects of life. He even denounces the weak breed of dog sitting on his couch. Casey becomes so obsessed with karate that he has a yellow leather belt custom-made so that he can wear his yellow belt all the time, even when he’s not kicking people in the face.

Imogen Poots contributes to the nastiness as Anna, a should-be black belt being subjugated by the misogynistic Sensei. Her showdown with fellow student Thomas (Steve Terada) shows that a destructive streak runs through her as well. Poots is her usual strong self—as scary as anybody else in the movie. David Zellner will break your heart as the friendly Henry, perhaps the only nice person in the whole film. And nice people in this movie are really out of place.

The humor in Stearns’ script is drier than burnt toast left out in the middle of the desert with a magnifying glass perched over it. The actors don’t get laughs by telling jokes; they get laughs by being so hilariously awful that you can’t believe it, especially Nivola. Teeth getting knocked out of somebody’s face have never been this funny.

While Eisenberg can be a one-note performer, he plays that note well, and this is his most memorable character in a long time. Like his Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Casey is a total ass—a weaselly jerk that you love to hate. His progression—from a meek guy trying to make conversations at work into a strangely masculine guy doing push-ups in the breakroom—is a lot of fun to watch.

The movie has some mystery that isn’t all that surprising, but you won’t care. The payoff is satisfying, not to mention insane. The Art of Self-Defense is the funniest film of the summer so far, and Nivola’s work within it counts as his career best.

The Art of Self-Defense is now playing at the Century Theatres at The River and XD (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Alex Holmes delivers a solid documentary with Maiden, about a woman named Tracy Edwards, who started her sailing career as a cook and eventually found herself leading the first all-female crew to ever sail the Whitbread Round the World Race.

Holmes uses archive footage, including some amazing sequences during the more perilous points of the journey, along with new interviews to tell the story. Simply put: Edwards is a charming and engaging storyteller, whether she’s in footage old or new, and as the story unfolds, and the team’s accomplishments become more and more amazing, you will find yourself rooting hard during an event that happened 30 years ago.

Of course, the team took a lot of crap from their male counterparts, and the fact that they even competed is astonishing, considering most of the crew was fairly green. It’s a gripping underdog story that will surprise—because you probably didn’t even know it ever happened.

Maiden is now playing at the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).

Alligators get their due as nasty cinematic monsters with Crawl—the biggest surprise so far this summer regarding simply having a damn good time at the movies. It puts Godzilla: King of the Monsters to shame.

Southern Florida is getting walloped by a hurricane, and collegiate swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) hasn’t heard from her dad (Barry Pepper) as the storm grows into a Category 5. Despite foreboding radio warnings, Haley drives to her old family home in an attempt to locate her wayward father and put other family members’ minds at ease.

With the family dog tagging along (of course), Haley ventures into the basement/crawlspace, where dad is unconscious with a suspicious wound. We’re not too far into the movie when the alligator baddies are introduced—and these toothy demons are using the rising waters as an excuse to swim around and party on human flesh. From the first gator to the final frame, Crawl aims to kick your butt with all-out horror thrills—with plenty of hurricane terror mixed in for good measure.

The vast majority of the film takes place in the house, and huge credit goes to director Alexandre Aja and his production team for making the basement a fun place for people to get rolled by an alligator. The alligators, mostly CGI, are terrific beasties—entirely convincing whether above or below water.

Unlike Jaws, Aja doesn’t hide his monsters for most of the movie. Like Jaws, this movie isn’t afraid to show somebody kicking and screaming as they slide into the mouth of a predator, or get thrashed around with their screaming upper half above the water level as the monster savages them beneath. Aja, who also directed the wonderfully disgusting Piranha 3D and the well-done remake of The Hills Have Eyes, does gore well.

This movie has jump scares you don’t see coming. There’s one involving a tree that almost sent me through the movie-theater ceiling. The jump scare seems to be a lost art these days, but Aja and his editors have the timing down to where not a single fright moment feels cheap.

Scodelario (a fun name to type if ever there was one) and Pepper are great together. The moments when they stop in the middle of all the terror to discuss his shortcomings as a dad or her insecurities as an athlete are actually interesting and don’t spoil the action. But make no mistake: They are best while screaming, grunting, crying and freaking when their various limbs are inside the mouths of alligators.

Many great things can be said about the CGI gators—and the same goes for the special effects that created a realistic hurricane with flash-flooding conditions. The stormy skies look very real; Scodelario and Pepper get sufficiently soaked. They are the wettest acting pair since DiCaprio and Winslet in Titanic.

By the time it all ends, Aja and crew have left us spent. At 87 minutes, the length of the movie is perfect—I was exhausted and didn’t want to see anybody else get eaten. I suppose there is room for a sequel, but I’m hoping they leave well enough alone. I’ve hit my terrifying-alligator-movie quotient for this decade.

Oh, and to those who marketed this movie: When you have a movie this good, knock it off with the review embargoes. Word of mouth on this movie didn’t start to spread until the day it came out because critic screenings came late, and embargoes were being enforced. As a result, your opening box office sucked. Have faith that your movie is good!

Crawl is playing at theaters across the valley.

Teen Spirit is Max Minghella’s directorial debut—he also wrote the script—and the film is a bit on the hackneyed side as it tells the story of a young girl’s rise to fame as a singer via a televised talent show.

What makes it all rather watchable is Elle Fanning as that girl, giving the talented actress a nice opportunity to show off an impressive singing voice. Fanning belts out songs by Tegan and Sara, Annie Lennox and Sigrid with refined assurance, making one believe she might actually win a TV talent show if she chose to compete.

The story around those singing moments is a little weird as Violet (Fanning), a Polish girl living in England, enlists the help of a former Russian opera star (Zlatko Buric) to be her manager. She makes it through the ranks despite little confidence in herself. It all has a Flashdance feel, although Violet is a waitress and not a welder.

You will forgive the cookie-cutter plot each time Fanning takes the stage and sings her heart out. She’s the real deal.

Teen Spirit is available via online sources including iTunes and